David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Once the cloud of desperation had cleared from Friday's elimination game, which the Yankees survived without Alex Rodriguez, Joe Girardi found it safe to return him to the lineup for Saturday's ALCS opener against the Tigers.
It didn't mean that Girardi suddenly trusted A-Rod or believed that the Yankees' $275-million enigma woke up in the morning remembering how to hit a baseball beyond the infield dirt. The simple truth is that Girardi could afford to stick Rodriguez back in the lineup, knowing that if he failed this time, the Yankees would live to fight another day.
Girardi still chose to proceed with caution. The manager penciled in A-Rod for the sixth spot, behind DH Raul Ibañez, and then talked about how he "can do a lot of damage." Girardi didn't specify to which team, the Tigers or his own. But he was hoping Game 1 would represent a clean slate for Rodriguez, as if the ALCS was like the start of a new semester or a second marriage.
"I think, in a sense, everyone should press the reset button," Girardi said Saturday afternoon. "Forget what happened yesterday. Forget what happened three days ago."
Sorry, Joe, it doesn't work that way. Everyone remembers the shocking sequence from the ALDS, which started with A-Rod being pulled for a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of Game 3, again in Game 4 and then benched for Game 5. It all worked out fine for Girardi, and the manager now knows that A-Rod -- if he doesn't emerge from this funk -- won't necessarily cost him the ALCS.
But the Yankees could use the help, and the fans, now pitying their fallen star, actually welcomed him to the plate Saturday night with a standing ovation. It was not a selfless gesture. Tigers starter Doug Fister had just walked the bases loaded, and with two outs, A-Rod didn't have to wait for his shot at redemption.
Rodriguez took a good swing at a first-pitch fastball and ripped a hard grounder that was destined to be a run-scoring single to leftfield, along with his first hit off a righthanded pitcher (0-for-12) in this postseason. But Jhonny Peralta ruined it with a full-extension dive to his right, then rifled a throw to second that narrowly beat Raul Ibañez for a force out.
Hey, it was a solid effort, and from where A-Rod has been the last few days, at least he made a contact. During his next two trips to the plate, the crowd wasn't quite as supportive. The fans booed after Rodriguez grounded into a double play to end the third inning and really crushed him after he whiffed on three pitches with two runners in scoring position in the sixth.
Always a magnet for controversy, Rodriguez is now a sympathetic figure. Watching the crowd attempting to will him back to life, by cheering and clapping as if he were Tinkerbell, is turning into a bizarre Stadium ritual.
Rodriguez is no dummy. He knows he's a mess right now. As does Girardi, who inserted him into Saturday's lineup on blind faith more than anything else. If the manager truly believed Rodriguez was one swing away from being the 2009 A-Rod, he never would have sat him for Game 5. Girardi just has better options and he won't have as much patience in this series as he did in the last one.
"This is a guy we expect a lot from," Girardi said. "I talk about sometimes going with my gut, and evaluating what I see, and different things you take into account when you make out the lineup, and I think he's raring to go."
It may be too late to fix A-Rod for this October, and despite the humbling chain of events this week, Rodriguez really can't hold a grudge, regardless of how this turns out.
All along, A-Rod has said the right things, and maintained the public image of being a "team-first" guy. That's his only recourse now -- acceptance of the situation. Rodriguez has plenty of company when it comes to stranding runners and that may force Girardi to make more adjustments to the lineup.
What we learned Saturday night, however, is that probably there won't be a fresh start for A-Rod in this series. The Yankees must hope that won't mean the end of their playoff run, too.